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Fossil Hunter, And His 95-Million-Year-Old Bird, Land At New Perot Museum

Imagine finding a few pieces of bone that lead to the identification of a new species. That’s what happened to one amateur North Texas fossil hunter whose discovery goes on display with Saturday’s opening of the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas.

  Kris Howe, of Carrollton, has been hunting fossils since he was 5. It’s something he did with his father, who taught him how to read the landscape and identify locations where the remains  might have collected millions of years ago.

He’s especially partial to an old river bed near Lake Grapevine where he stumbled across the fossils that would earn him recognition in the world of paleontology.

“If you look down the edge of this exposure you can see a difference in the color," Howe says as he retraces his path. “That area in between is an ancient riverbed. If you had something that would be deposited it would be in the riverbed typically."

Howe remembers walking the ridge five years ago when he saw something unusual poking up through the loose, crumbling shale.

“There was one little bone and a couple of feet from there was another little bone and that’s all really you could see,” he says. “I didn’t know what they were."

So Howe took the bones to paleontologist Tony Fiorillo, who's now the curator of fossils at the Perot Museum.

“It was material you’d expect to see at the bottom of a Kentucky Fried chicken bucket,” Fiorillo muses. “And you could have picked us up off the floor because we could recognize immediately he had a fossil bird.”

And not just any fossil bird. It was the oldest known bird ever found in North Americ -- about 95 million years old. And it was a new species to boot.

“This bird was living near the shoreline of an ocean body as opposed to a freshwater lake,” Fiorillo says. “There were some dinosaurs roaming somewhere on the landscape.

“It (the bird) looks very modern but it’s not related to modern birds because you’ll see teeth on the bill and fingers and claws on the wings."

The paleontologist says the four fossil bones didn’t make an impressive display, so he and others worked with an artist to carve a mostly wooden replica of the prehistoric bird. It’s on display in the new Perot Museum, in a hall that may surprise many with the number of impressive fossils from North Texas.

Here's a video of Ron Tykoski describing how the 95-million-year-old bird bones were found:

A shallow ocean once covered the area, leaving a treasure trove of fossils  behind. Fiorillo credits amateur paleontologists with some of the most fascinating finds.

“We have a beautiful Edaphosaurus skeleton against the wall that is from around Wichita Falls,” he says as he points out the Texas specimens. "It was found by a couple of amateurs, one a school teacher, the other a retired harpist with Dallas Opera symphony.

“We have this beautiful Tylosaurus skeleton that was found on the shores of Lake Ray Hubbard. Then we have Tenontosaurus which was the first dinosaur skeleton ever mounted anywhere in the world and that comes from Wise County.”

Fiorillo says our understanding of the prehistoric world owes much to amateur fossil hunters, though only a few like Howe can point to new species that bear their names.

The bird he found is Flexomornis howei. Flexomornis for its unique flexed shoulder. Howei, in honor of its collector, Kris Howe.

“It’s pretty cool. My dad got me into collecting fossils, and his dream was to find a new species of animal. He wasn’t able to but I was,” said Howe who now shares his family passion for digging up the past with his two sons.

Eight-year old David hopes to some day have his big discovery exhibited next to his dad’s.

“What I like to do best is find one spot and start digging,” said David.

Former KERA staffer Shelley Kofler was news director, managing editor and senior reporter. She is an award-winning reporter and television producer who previously served as the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.